Elbasan, Albania — For a year during World War II, a teenage Nijazi Bicaku helped his father protect 26 Jews from the Nazis.
He led the Jews to a clearing in the forest an hour away from the family home, made a simple hut for them, brought them food every day. And he told nobody what he was doing.
“No one else knew,” says Bicaku, now 77, a one-time shepherd. “It was our secret.”
He did not know it then, but the father and son were not alone in rescuing Jews from the occupying German army during the Holocaust. Less known than the rescue movement in Denmark, the efforts of Albanian Muslims and Christians for their Jewish neighbors — and for Jews from other European countries who sought refuge in Albania — proportionately were the most successful of those in any land.
“Albania is the only country in occupied Europe where Jews were not victims of the Nazi killing machine,” Harvey Sarner writes in “Rescue in Albania: One Hundred Percent of Jews in Albania Rescued from Holocaust” (Brunswick Press, 1997). “It was the only occupied country to have a larger Jewish population after the Second World War than before.”
The exact number is not known. Albania’s Jewish population numbered only a few hundred on the eve of the war, and several hundred more Jews were known to have fled to Albania.
“Every Albanian Jew survived the Holocaust,” Sarner writes. “Every Greek, Yugoslav, Austrian and German Jew who was lucky enough to get into Albania proper also survived.”
From the summer of 1943, when the Germans invaded Albania, until the summer of 1944, when they were defeated by Albania’s National Liberation Army, the Albanian government, which retained control over “internal affairs,” and Albanian citizens refused to hand over Jews to the Nazis. Though this aspect of Albanian history is not taught in schools here, it is common knowledge through word of mouth and television documentaries.
The Albanians “are good people — they respect the Jews,” says Vjera Kilica, a Warsaw-born Jew who was saved by an Albanian family, and settled in Tirana after the war. “Nobody was given to the enemy. We were safe here.”
“We saved the Jewish people because we believed in God —we did not think about religion,” Bicaku says, sitting on a couch in his small, stone house in the center of Elbasan.
Bicaku is Muslim; a wood carving of Mecca hangs in his kitchen. He knew no Jews while growing up in a nearby village.
The friend of a Macedonian priest who had found refuge in the Bicaku home told Nijazi’s father, Mufail, about endangered Jews. Mufail offered to help, escorting them from Tirana, the capital. A few at a time came, until the number reached 26.
Mufail, a farmer, shared the family’s limited food with the refugees. To avoid drawing suspicion at the local bakery, he would make his bulk purchases of bread at night in Macedonia.
“He was not afraid,” Bicaku says. “We were prepared. We had guns in the house.”
Bicaku each day would carry the food — cheese, yogurt, potatoes — to the hidden Jews, and keep them posted on outside news.
“I was the oldest. My father trusted me,” Bicaku says, holding a framed photograph of his father while rolling a cigarette from tobacco in a small tin.
Bicaku and his late father were honored as Righteous Gentiles by Yad Vashem — among 53 Albanians to receive that designation — in 1996 in a ceremony held near the family’s old village. For more than 40 years they were unable to keep in touch with the rescued Jews, who left Albania after the war, because the country’s hard-line Communist government forbade contact with the West.
Now that Albania is free, visiting Israelis and Jews from the United States make a pilgrimage to the Bicaku home. “They thank me,” he says.
Was his father a hero?
“Very much,” Bicaku says.
Was he a hero?
He nods his head — no in Albania.
“I was young,” he says. “I just did what my father did.”
Zionism And A Beer
Vangjel Kapedani identifies himself as a lapsed Catholic, but the Israeli flag he wears on his lapel identifies him as … well, let him explain.
“I believe as the Hebrews believe,” says Kapedani, who owns a small bar in the Elbasan city hall and serves as a one-man Israeli chamber of commerce.
Kapedani, 44, displays a “Longlife Israel!” sign at his bar, and has an iron Magen David built into the fence around the roof of his house, next to his childhood home.
“This neighborhood was founded by the Hebrews,” he says proudly, using a popular Albanian term for Jews.
Kapedani, part mystic, part publicist, installed the Star of David as a message to the Catholic church and Orthodox church that flank his dwelling; a mosque is a couple hundred yards away. The message: “In Albania, there are sympathizers of Israel.”
He has no interest in converting to Judaism — “not yet” — and has not visited Israel. But he has written a think tank in Israel (no answer so far), printed one issue of his own newsletter (the Golda Times), and hopes to open his house as a research center and hostel for visiting Jews.
He talks vaguely of a vision — Golda Meir told him, in a dream, “Your salvation is in Israel.” He works independently of the established Albanian-Israel Friendship Society, but says, “I have my sympathizers.”
His bar has become a popular stop for Israelis and American Jews working at refugee camps and medical clinics here. “It is,” he says, “incredible for them.”
‘Bread And Butter’ Medicine
Albania borders on Kosovo, a war zone for a few recent months, but the medicine Dr. Rick Hodes has practiced since April on Kosovar refugees in Albania is relatively tame — high blood pressure, heart disease, “a lot of diabetes.”
“This is bread and butter American medicine,” says the 46-year-old native of Syosset, L.I., who has served as medical director for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Ethiopia since 1990. He came to Albania a few weeks after the Serbian military campaign against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo began.
“There was a massive refugee movement here and we wanted to help them,” Hodes says. He has assessed refugees’ medical needs, helped start four JDC clinics in Elbasan, trained Kosovar physicians and nurses, and made house calls to infirm refugees who have found lodging with Albanians.
Hodes has encountered none of the exotic diseases — malaria, cholera, shigella — he finds among refugees in Ethiopia and other African nations. Though he learned only a few words of Albanian, he speaks a universal language with his patients — a smile. “The refugees seem grateful” for his work, he says.
Hodes’ family, according to a tradition, was part of the 1492 Spanish Expulsion. He tells the Kosovars, expelled from their homeland, “The same thing happened to my family — 507 years ago we were thrown out of Spain. My translator loves telling that story.”
Helping Hands From Israel
A month in Albania has helped the foreign-language skills of four medical volunteers from Israel. The language is English.
Mirka Sverdlov and Yaffa Dolberg, coronary intensive care nurses, and pediatricians Sarah Beni and Manna Shteinfeld came here under the auspices of Aid Without Borders, a year-old humanitarian Israeli organization. After 10 days working in a Macedonian border village, they were assigned to Elbasan.
They work in the four clinics administered by the JDC, visit refugee patients in homes and hope to help out in Albanian hospitals. They distributed some toys and socks they brought from Israel. And each day one of the women leads a discussion in English on a current medical topic for the Kosovar-trained physicians and nurses who staff the clinics. An interpreter repeats their words in Albanian.
The volunteers spend countless hours preparing each 15-minute presentation.
“They trust the Israeli professionalism [in medicine] very much,” Beni says. In addition to Israeli army doctors who established a clinic in Macedonia at the beginning of the Kosovar exodus, another group from Aid Without Borders volunteered there for a month.
“I couldn’t stand by” and watch the Kosovar refugee crisis, says Sverdlov, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, about her “vacation” in Albania. A few years ago, she spent two weeks working with refugees in Rwanda.
“They [the Kosovars] know about our history,” she says.